Thaïs’ Torch Song

I know a girl, a girl called Party, Party girl

Diodorus
(XVIII.72)
We all know what happened at Persepolis: Alexander got drunk and allowed Thaïs of Athens to persuade him to burn the royal palace down in revenge for the destruction wrought by the Persians when they invaded Greece 150 years earlier.

Diodorus adds a few details to this outline. The party was part of a celebration, which included ‘costly sacrifices to the gods’ and games ‘in honour of his victories’.

He says that when Thaïs rose to speak, ‘the drinking was far advanced’. I take this to mean that it had been going on for a long time rather than that Alexander, for example, was blind drunk, otherwise I doubt he would have been physically able to lead the ‘triumphal procession’ that ended with the palace being torched.

Either way, the only other details that he gives us are that the feast was a rich one and that female musicians were present. For when Alexander led the guests out of the palace, they followed, singing and playing flutes and pipes.

***

Arrian
(III.18-19)
As we have discovered over the last couple of days, Arrian is not your go-to man for anything involving fun. His account of the nine-day festival at Dium was perfunctory and he simply ignored the jauntier side of the Macedonian’s one month stay in Babylon.

Things do not improve here in Persepolis. Arrian says nothing at all about the Macedonian celebrations and implies that Alexander alone was responsible for the decision to burn the royal palace.

The reason for these omissions, and – by-the-way, the absence of Thaïs’ name – may stem from the fact that Arrian took his account of what happened in Persepolis from Ptolemy Lagides, her lover, who would obviously have had no interest in reminding anyone of her part in the affair.

Having said that, Ptolemy was not Arrian’s only source, and I very much doubt that Aristobulos – who treats Alexander so favourably – would have identified his king as being solely responsible for the debacle.

But even if he had (and he is supposed to have lived in Alexandria in later years so maybe had to think about keeping Ptolemy sweet) what of other writers? The only explanation I can offer is that Arrian did indeed know about Thaïs’ involvement but simply decided to trust Ptolemy’s account. King’s don’t lie, after all.

***

Plutarch
(Life 38)
Plutarch builds upon Diodorus’ picture of what happened. He explains that Alexander ‘happened to get involved in a rowdy drinking party with his companions’. I have to trust that the translation is accurate but with the best will in the world, I really can’t imagine Alexander just ‘happening’ to join a party.

Anyway, ‘[s]ome women’ were present. They ‘had come in a drunken revel to see their lovers’. As we’ll see in the long quote from Curtius, below, he is talking here about the courtesans who lived with some of Alexander’s generals.

Rather than talk further about Thaïs, here is a link to my post on this chapter of Plutarch’s Life, which I wrote for my Tumblr blog. I’ll now move on to Cutius as the rest of Chapter 38 is taken up with Thaïs’ speech and its consequences.

***

Curtius
(V.7)
Yesterday, we saw Curtius write like an ‘outraged’ tabloid journalist with his hyperbolic description of Babylon’s sexual depravity*. Today, we do not find him any less annoyed.

He admits that ‘Alexander had some great natural gifts’ but snaps that ‘all these were marred by his inexcusable fondness for drink.’

At the very time that his enemy and rival for imperial power was preparing to resume hostilities, and when the conquered nations, only recently subdued, still had scant respect for his authority, he was attending day-time drinking parties at which women were present – not, indeed, such women as it was a crime to violate, but courtesans who had been leading disreputable lives with the soldiers.

And that’s how we know that Curtius was the Roman equivalent of a tabloid journalist. He liked being outraged and considered that it was acceptable to ‘violate’ some women**.

As Curtius’ blood pressure rises, he refers to Thaïs as ‘the drunken whore’. Now, drunk she may have been, but a whore she was not; at least, not in the commonly understood sense. Whores, by which I mean common prostitutes, offered sex. They trod the streets with messages like ‘follow me’ cut into their shoes and that was that. You got no more than their bodies from them.

Courtesans, by contrast, were well educated women who may have slept with their clients but were hired also – or principally – for their companionship, their intellectual and artistic skills. Now, I don’t know what word Curtius used to describe Thaïs but if he used the Latin for ‘[common] prostitute’ he was either ignorant of her true profession or purposefully ignoring it in order to put her down. Given his low of view of women as described above, I suspect the later is the case.

Curtius goes on to say that the Macedonians were ashamed of what Alexander (and presumably, Thaïs) did and that the king, after sleeping off his drunkenness also regretted his actions. This is in accord with what Plutarch says.

* I am aware that Babylon had a very bad reputation in terms of the sexual conduct of its people but Curtius could always have used more sober or neutral language. He is a historian not a moralist

** Here I have to recognise that Curtius may simply be referring to the fact – if so it was – that courtesans had no protection from rape under the law. Such would appear to be the case in respect of prostitutes according to this Wikipedia article. But even if there is only stating a legal fact we may still question the overall tone of his writing which is negative

Persepolis in Short
Reason Celebrate Alexander’s war victories
Duration Short – perhaps one night?
Outstanding Features Ended with one less royal palace in the world
Result Ptolemy sitting at his desk many years later, thinking “… no, I really can’t put that in. Is there any party that is safe to mention??”

Categories: Humour | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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